Thursday, August 30, 2012
2012 World Endurance Championship - Great Britain
Saturday August 25 2012
You never know who you're going to bump into riding in a World Endurance Championship. Like, say, a Prime Minister (who happened to win), or several Princes (one finished second, one finished 6th; one got pulled at the first vet gate, one got pulled at the 4th vet gate), or a King (who finished 38th). You might see previous World Endurance Champions (one finished 4th, one finished 20th). You might encounter a 71-year-old man from Argentina (who rode a beautiful horse but was pulled at vet gate 3), or a 14-year-old boy who's the 2012 Portuguese Champion after starting his endurance qualifications just 6 months earlier (he finished 47th).
Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the UAE, has been gunning for this gold medal win for a long time. His Highness got involved in endurance in the mid-1990's, when he bought Fire and Gold, the horse Valerie Kanavy rode to a second place finish in the 1996 WEC. His Highness's first World Championship ride was in the 2002 WEC in Spain, where he did not complete; in the Dubai WEC in 2005 he finished 2nd after the winner was disqualified; in the USA WEC in 2010, he finished 2nd. This year he won.
Since deciding to participate in endurance, the Shaikhs did it in a big way: they went out and bought up all the best endurance horses around the world. Paid big bucks in some cases. The Shaikhs have, as rumor has it, 'a thousand horses' in each of their stables around the world (if that number is exaggerated, "limitless" might be apt). They employ hundreds of trainers, grooms, riders, and veterinarians, who prepare and maintain their horses for endurance.
The French used to be the Kings of Endurance, until the Shaikhs bought up all their good French horses - possibly that's why the French were only going for the Silver Team medal this year at the WEC. They got it, with their team members Pierre Fleury, Philippe Tomas, and Jean-Philippe Frances finishing 9th, 10th, and 13th. “This was a strong team," said the French team vet, Christophe Pelissier. "Silver was our target and we will be aiming higher next time,” he said.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammed's mount, Madji du Pont, is a 12-year-old gelding who came from Spain. Shaikh Mohammed's son, His Excellency Shaikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum, who finished second, rode (according to the start and finish lists) Yamamah, a 13-year-old mare, who is actually Kurrajong Concorde. (No word on a reason for the name change.) She came from Meg Wade's Castlebar Arabians in Australia, and Meg Wade was there to watch. It was Meg's first appearance at a World Endurance Championship since a horrific riding accident in 2009 left her in a coma for weeks, and 9 months in a rehab hospital with Acquired Brain Injury. It was quite rewarding to see Meg getting around on her own, and it must have been both a sad and happy day for her, being amongst so many well-wishing endurance friends, and watching one of her former horses perform so well.
UAE's Ali Khalfan Al Jahouri took the bronze medal, riding Vendaval, a 10-year-old gelding from Uruguay. Shaikh Mohammed's son His Excellency Shaikh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum finished 6th on the 14-year-old French gelding Kangoo d'Aurabelle. Previous owner-rider Virginie Atger and Kangoo got the silver medal at the 2006 World Endurance Championship in Germany. In 2008 she sold her horse to Shaikh Majid who went on to win the 2009 WEC pre-ride in Kentucky. In this 2012 World Endurance Championship, Shaikh Majid wasn't riding up front like he usually does - he rode almost exactly 15 minutes behind the leaders on every loop.
His Excelleny's 6th place finish also gave the UAE Team Gold (His Highness and Ali Khalfan also composed the UAE team). As Mohammed Esse Al Adhab of the Dubai Equestrian Club said: “We are very pleased with the result. We reached our target – where can we go from here?”
The Shaikhs don't regularly pay as much for endurance horses anymore, but people still hope, and that's one of the reasons that keeps them going to participate in these big championship rides. If your horse performs well at a World Endurance Championship, such as Top Ten or Best Condition, you'll likely be offered a high 5 figures or more from some interested party anxious to relieve you of your horse. That's one reason. Others come just because they are able to make it here and compete, perhaps on a horse they bred and raised and trained, and to represent their country.
This was the King of Malaysia's first World Endurance Championship completion, after failing to finish in the 2008 WEC that Malaysia hosted. Due to the absence of the cadre of camera-toting journalists usually following the royalty around at these rides, one might not have even recognized him. His Majesty's finish is a great accomplishment for the Malaysians, who dove wholeheartedly into the world endurance scene headfirst in the early 2000's, and hosted a well-organized WEC in 2008.
Unquestionably, the most popular horse and rider in this year's World Endurance Championship, regardless of which country you came from and supported, were Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton and Nobby. Former World Champions in 2008 (Malaysia) and 2010 (USA), and European Champions in 2009 (Italy) and 2011 (France), the pair turned the most heads and illicited the biggest cheers throughout the day. Even after the 3 UAE riders finished the race in the first 3 places, taking their large retinue with them to the vet gates, the largest crowd remained behind in the rain waiting to cheer Nobby and Maria across the finish line, even when there was no hope this popular pair would be able to catch the leaders.
Despite consistently running at the front on every loop in the last 3 World Championships, Nobby's pulse-down times have consistently been under 2 minutes at every single vet gate in each of the last 3 World Championships. All except for the 5th vet gate at this year's WEC, where it took him a whole 5 minutes 7 seconds to pulse down, putting the pair 5 minutes behind the UAE riders going out on the last 20-km loop. That still provided slim hope for fans that Nobby and Maria might repeat a third time as World Champions, but instead they dropped back another 6 minutes on the loop, putting them solidly in 4th, 11 minutes behind the winner Shaikh Mohammed, and still a safe 8 minutes ahead of 5th place, Spain's Alex Luque and Ikland, and they still received a huge round of cheers as Maria and Nobby cantered across the finish line, Maria pounding her fist in the air and pointing at Nobby, indicating, "It's all him - he's amazing!"
At 16 years, Nobby was the 3rd oldest horse in the race. Perhaps he's not done yet; Maria and her husband Jaume Punti know how to keep this champion performing at the top of his game, with only 1 or 2 starts a year. Spanish Chef d'Equipe Ignaci Casas confirmed before the race that Nobby was training brilliantly, both in the UAE in the winter, and in Spain in the summer.
Spain's Alex Luque and Ikland: 5th place and Best Condition. Everybody who saw the Best Condition judging on Sunday said Ikland stood out far above the other horses. It's the biggest accomplishment for Alex since his endurance records begin in 2004. He was part of the Spanish team in the USA 2010 WEC, finishing 23rd on Sankoc. Alex and 8-year-old Ikland show a previous 11 starts and 8 finishes over 3 seasons, with a 1st place in the 120-km El Paular in 2010, 1st in the 160-km Lucanes in 2011, and 1st in the 3x80 km Bratislava ride in 2011.
After dominating endurance racing in the 1980's and 1990's, the USA hadn't hit the medal board since. This year, new Chef d'Equipe Emmett Ross had an excellent team that was focused, confident, and well-prepared. They were aiming for a team medal, and it looked as they might be on track for a bronze medal, until John Crandell's Heraldic vetted out surprisingly at the recheck before the last loop, for lameness. It was quite a blow, as Heraldic has been quite the superhorse, winning, in the USA, the grueling Tevis Cup twice, Old Dominion twice, and the AERC National Championships twice. In the middle of those wins, he severely damaged his stifle in a near career-ending injury. After signaling his return to extraordinary form in 2009 and winning the Tevis Cup and Old Dominion for the second time, John and Heraldic brought home the silver medal (and Team Silver) at the 2011 Pan American Games in Chile.
It was USA's Meg Sleeper who surprised many people by finishing 11th on her homebred 12-year-old mare, Syrocco Reveille. It surprised even Meg, who hadn't realized what place she was in on the last loop. Had she known, she said later, she might have raced for the 10th slot, instead of finishing together with France's Philippe Tomas (10th place) and Belgium's Maritza Pereira (12th place). Still, 11th place is an extraordinary accomplishment, after not completing the 2008 WEC and the 2010 WEC, and finishing 22nd in the 2006 WEC in Aachen.
The rest of the USA riders all finished: former World Champion Valerie Kanavy finished 20th on Reach for the Gold; Jeremy Reynolds and A Kutt Above finished 21st; his wife Heather Reynolds and Riverwatch finished 36th. The USA team came 4th, 50 minutes behind Oman, who surprised many people in getting the bronze.
Emmett Ross said afterwards: "We are proud to be a part of this elite World Championships. A great deal of training and preparation has guided the team through this technically challenging course and today's weather conditions. The calibre of riders is high and competition fierce but the team has stayed focused throughout the loops and ensured the safety and welfare of the horses at all times."
The last of the US horses were doing their final trot-outs when a violent thunderstorm passed over the area, replete with heavy rain, hail, wind, and fierce lightning, severe enough to cause officials to stop the race due to the danger to horses and riders. All riders were given the placing they were in at the time; all had to pass their last vet check to get a completion. Some were lucky enough to be in the venue at their 5th vet gate hold and not have to go out again; unlucky others were caught out on course during the storm. The dry course was challenging enough, with tall grass to make the many 90 degree turns slick if you took them too fast and didn't pay attention to your horse's transitions, and uneven footing over much of the course.
One of the unlucky ones was Australia's 17-year-old Alexandra Toft, riding 9-year-old Emily Jone te. Alexandra had experienced some heavy rain and cold in the 2009 pre-ride for the 2010 WEC in Kentucky, where the 160-km race was called at 120 km due to similar dangerously slick conditions underfoot. There, though, they didn't have the wind or lightning. "It was very scary," Alexandra said of this race. "My horse was great though, she handled it well." This was Alexandra's 3rd World Championship, but her first one riding as a senior. She'd previously finished the World Young Rider/Junior Championships in Hungary in 2009 and Abu Dhabi in 2011.
Alexandra was the last rider to come in off loop 6 of the course in the dark, awaited anxiously by her parents Peter Toft (Australia's Chef d'Equipe) and Penny Toft (she withdrew her 10-year-old mare Travina at the 3rd vet gate), and it was a great relief to see Emily Jones te pass the final vet check. They finished in 52nd place, the only member of the Australian contingent to finish.
It can cost a King's Ransom to participate in a World Endurance Championship if you don't have the help of a national federation, especially if you have to cross an ocean to get to the starting line. Not counting all the qualifying rides, just an overseas trip to a WEC can put you in the red around $20,000.
Canada had 5 horses and riders on the nominated list for the WEC, but only Yvette Vinton could, in the end, afford to come. She, too, was caught out on the 5th loop in the storm. "I kept trying to pretend those dark clouds were moving the other way…. but - BOOM! It caught us. Lightning here, lighting there, my horse's head was going sideways against the big raindrops… The track was terrible. We slowed down a lot to make it in safely." Yvette and her 8-year-old gelding Quiwi de Breventec finished 68th.
Norway's Ellen Suhr's ride was almost over before it even started. Her 10-year-old gelding Shah Nahim was having rearing fits at the start. She let 143 horses and riders go ahead on the trail - every single one - to where the major excitement (close quarters, stumblers, bolters, runaways, buckers, crowds cheering loudly) was diminished before she dared start across the starting line, but even then Shah Nahim reared in the air again. Ellen lost a rein, and she had no choice but to bail off. She continued leading her horse down the trail on foot, spotting the entire field many minutes, before she mounted up, but even then, it took a whole loop before he settled down. "I don't know what it is," she said later. "He's been getting worse every ride at the start. It's hard to replicate the crazy conditions of 150 horses starting in a ride in Sweden (his last ride, where he finished 2nd had only 17 starters). Once he gets going though, he's beautiful to ride…" she said ruefully, the agony of his scary antics at the start conflicting with the beauty of his going once he settled down in a ride. She got Shah Nahim because he's a brother to another good horse she rode. One can only hope he can learn to settle down, as his 42nd place came at a fine average of 18.12 km/h.
For one rider, it was all over soon after it started. The Netherlands came to the WEC with 5 horses; only 3 vetted in. One of them was Donna Oudshoorn and Karrimh, an 18-year-old gelding (the 2nd oldest horse in the race). They'd previously finished 2nd in the 160 km Gartow race in Germany in April. Not long after the start, Karrimh stumbled and fell. Donna was unhurt, but Karrimh broke a shoulder and was put down. A terrible tragedy for Donna, and the entire Dutch endurance world. Endurance is a small family in Holland, so everybody felt this one.
"I'm so proud of my horse!" said the lone rider representing Lithuania, Alisija Zabavska-Granger (she lives in the USA). She was on her 5th vet gate hold when the black storm cloud hit. "I was kind of hoping we wouldn't have to go back out, because the track was already difficult without the rain. But my horse would have gone out there, he was so strong and willing. He was great all day and I know he would have completed the last loop. I'm glad they called the ride because it would have been dangerous for the horses and riders."
Ellen and Jeremy Olson from the USA leased a horse to one of the 3 Japanese riders, Kyoko Fukumori. Kyoko had a smile on her face, all day, even after her horse Noslos Lightning Strikes, aka "Red", was pulled at the recheck at the 4th vet gate for lameness - it took 3 trot-outs for the vets to confirm their decision to pull him. Team Noslo were all proud of Red after he and Kyoko averaged 20.5 km/h over the 4 loops. "He had TONS of gas left for the last 20 miles," Ellen said later. Red and Kyoko were in around 15th place when they were pulled. Kyoko was standing in the crewing area well after the other two Japanese riders finished (Hiromi Kitaike and Dameon PJ in 69th, Seiichi Hasumi on Kareem PJ in 73rd) and after the storm passed, holding a bowl of slop for her horse to eat. She was still smiling hugely, and thanking people for their cheering. "Love ENDURANCE!!" Kyoko posted after the race. She was so thrilled just to be in England and participating in the race, her first World Endurance Championship.
On Saturday the riding styles, skills, experiences, and career mileages of riders varied widely, but nobody else riding in this year's World Endurance Championship could come close to boasting of owning 8 Tevis Cup buckles. Not that Mr Hasumi is the type to boast. The 69-year-old retired businessman cheerfully went about his third attempt at a World Championship (he did not finish in 2005 and 2008) as he does every ride: quietly and determinedly. His shoulder must still have been smarting from the tumble he took off his horse in attempting his 9th straight completion in the Tevis Cup two weeks earlier, but he was the last rider to complete the WEC course, having been caught out on loop 5 in the storm that stopped the race.
Ten years ago in Japan, at age 59, Mr Hasumi watched a documentary of the Tevis Cup, and decided that was something he wanted to do in his retirement. He'd never ridden a horse before. Since diving into the sport (the Tevis Cup was his 5th endurance ride ever), Mr Hasumi has encouraged and supported the sport of endurance in Japan, buying horses, putting on rides in Japan, and assisting other riders. This is a man who now truly knows both sides of endurance: racing in a World Endurance Championship (though some would not call his average of 14.16 km/h 'racing'), and riding in the technically, physically, and mentally challenging Tevis Cup, considered by many the most difficult 100-mile ride in the world.
Every rider had a personal story to tell, but this gives you an idea of the scope of this year's World Endurance Championship. It's a different sport, this racing endurance horses 100 miles, where to be competitive in the Top Ten, one must be prepared to ride their horse at an average speed of over 20 km/h, cantering most of the way. You might be the leader of a country with hundreds of mounts to choose from, or you might be a blue-collar worker, with one homebred horse that you brought here by mortgaging your house, and you might be riding side-by-side for a time. Either way, it's best to remember the huge effort and heart that your horse puts forth; and to see a horse like Nobby come back year after year and prove his excellence makes you proud, no matter what country you're from or what kind of endurance you ride.
We hope to see some of these same horse and rider combinations again. The next one's in Normandy, France, in 2014.